STARS IN THE DIRT
TWO WORLD-CLASS EVENTS BRING MOUNTAIN BIKING'S BIG WHEELS TO THE BAY AREA
COMING OFF A GOLDEN YEAR, OLYMPIC CHAMP HAS BIG PLANS FOR LOCAL RACES

Published: Thursday, March 20, 1997
Section: Venture
Page: 7D

By JASON ABLES, Special to Venture
South Bay cyclists, take note: In the next week or so, you may be passed by a human blur. But if you hear any Dutch as you are being passed, take heart. That blur has sped by many riders. It is his job.

Bart Brentjens of the Netherlands, the man who last summer won the first Olympic gold medal ever in mountain biking, is in the neighborhood, and he has come to race - twice.

The 28-year-old Brentjens - a former world champion, World Cup champion and off-road Tour de France winner - will face off against the best riders in the world when the Grundig/UCI World Cup Cross Country Series opens its season the first weekend of April near Napa. And this weekend, he'll be among 3,000 competitors to descend on Monterey's Laguna Seca Recreation Area for the annual SRAM Sea Otter Classic.

Between the two races, Brentjens plans to stay in the area. A recent addition to the Specialized/Mountain Dew team, he will train near Specialized's Morgan Hill headquarters and in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Racing for only the second time in California, he has big plans.

''There are a lot of good riders, I think more than 20 who can win every race, and you have to make your goals very strict (in picking races),'' said Brentjens last week in an interview from Arizona, where he was racing. ''Otherwise it is not possible to win.''

On his list to win is the Napa race, the first Bay Area event in the six-year history of the World Cup series run by the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body. Women's Olympic champion Paola Pezzo of Italy will be racing in Napa, and so will three-time world champion Alison Sydor of Canada.

As for the Sea Otter, Brentjens showed in last weekend's Specialized Cactus Cup that he can win a stage race, an unusual format for off-road competition. In Monterey, as in the Cactus, racers add their times together from three separate races over three days.

The Sea Otter has quickly risen from a locals' race to a world-class festival. Popular with spectators as well as racers, it features not just mountain biking, but road racing, observed trials, in-line skating, and, starting this year, a BMX national competition. And this year it enjoys the added bonus of the Grundig. The two events, so close in time and space, are akin to a harmonic convergence of wheeled-sport champions.

On hand will be three-time world champion Hank Djernis; former world champion John Tomac; current women's national champion and former world champion Ruthie Matthes; 1996 Sea Otter winner Rune Hoydahl; Ned Overend, another former world champion and the dean of American mountain bike racing; Ot Pi, the legendary Spanish trials star, and his heir apparent, world champion Libor Karas; plus the Bay Area's own in-line skating star Eddy Matzger and cyclists Shari Kain of Half Moon Bay and Don Myrah of Saratoga.

Kain, the women's U.S. cyclocross champion, took second place at the Cactus Cup to Sydor and plans on chasing the U.S. cross-country title this season. Myrah, ''one of the favorites'' to win, according to Brentjens, is a former world champion and four-time national cyclocross champion who represented the United States at last summer's Olympics. For these two, the Sea Otter is like a home course.

''It is always a good place to start the season - you kind of get an idea where your fitness is, (and) a lot of good guys show up,'' said Myrah. He and Kain will also race the Grundig.

For Brentjens the Sea Otter, with its depth of talent, is a great way to stay sharp and gauge the other pros while waiting for the Grundig.

He won the 1995 world championship and in 1994 was the Grundig overall champion, but it is the Olympics that are to be forever attached to his name. While the Georgia heat and humidity crumpled many riders last July, Brentjens persevered. Known to peak for big races, he had ridden a training bike twice a week in a sauna in preparation. On race day he led from start to finish.

''It is a good feeling, special,'' he said. ''You take more than half a season focused on one race, doing all the training, all the races for (that) one race. That was a long time, and when you win the gold medal you feel great.''

He was received at The Hague by the Netherlands' queen, and his hometown of Schayk (pronounced ''shike'') held a bash in his honor. ''They rode me through the village with a limousine. For America it is not so special,'' he said with a laugh, ''but in Holland it is very special to sit in a limousine. There were more than 6,000 people in my village and in the village (there) lives only 5,000 people.''

His Olympic success has made him a marked man, watched by fellow racers - a situation he takes philosophically. ''They think, 'Oh, Brentjens is here. I should beat him.' Sometimes it is a problem, but this is a new season and everybody started again with zero,'' he said. ''I think for all the new riders there are new possibilities, new races, new goals.''

His immediate goal is building his rapport with his new sponsor, Specialized, a team for which he had always wanted to ride. As the new focus of the Morgan Hill company's off-road program, Brentjens credits the old focus, Ned Overend, for having a big influence on his decision.

''I saw them at the World Cup races with Ned Overend and the whole team, and I see that (they were) very professional,'' he said. ''I hope that I can do the same as (Overend) did in his career because he was one of the biggest guys in mountain bike sport. . . . He is a legend.''

If there is a drawback to being at the top of his sport, with the team of his choice and youth still on his side, it is this: His flowers go untended. ''When I am not training I like cultivating flowers very much,'' Brentjens said. ''But this year we (he and his wife of two years) are doing a lot of traveling . . . and I think it is not (too possible) to cultivate the flowers because they do not get enough water.''

In the end, for all the fame and success he has enjoyed, he said his prime motivation is still the simple joy of riding a bike.

''You (are) one with your own body and you can ride through the nature and see how far you can go,'' he said, ''(You) take the level every time a little bit higher and it's nice what you can do with a mountain bike. You can go very fast downhill, you can do very steep climbs.''

Like being a kid? ''Yeah, it is,'' he answered, laughing. ''Sometimes we are kids, but I think for everybody it is OK to be a kid.''
 
 

Next month: the Sizzler
April 12-13, Grant Ranch County Park, San Jose; (408) 997-3581
 

(box) The Sizzler Mountain Bike Classic marks its ninth year, and its second as an event on the American Mountain Bike Challenge, NORBA's developmental circuit.
 

(box) Spectators: Park admission is $3 a car. The race site will have a festival, live music and contests.
 

(box) Competitors: April 4 is the deadline for the early-entry prices listed below; add $5.50 for later or race day registration.
 

(box) April 12: The Bonsai, a three-mile downhill race described as very dangerous, $20.50; the fun ride, a non-competitive family event on fire roads and single track, $26.50 including T-shirt, barbecue and raffle ticket.
 

(box) April 13: Free race for kids ages 6-12 on a quarter-mile course in the meadow; 12- or 26-mile cross-country race, $30, includes barbecue and raffle ticket.
 
 

Copyright 1997, The San Jose Mercury News. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.